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What Depression Does to Your Brain
Ever wonder what depression really does inside the brain? Read on to find out!
No one is surprised by the news that depression and anxiety can be physically damaging. Anyone who has ever suffered from moderate to severe depression knows just how painful it can be. However, until recently, scientists had no way of documenting the effects of depression on the brain directly.
A new study published in the June 2015 issue of Molecular Psychiatry has finally identified just how depression affects the brain. This study revealed that depression actually damages the hippocampus, which is used for memory and emotion control. A damaged hippocampus can have serious consequences, and can be particularly damaging for young people suffering from depression.
The study researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine the brains of almost 9,000 study participants. Some of the participants suffered from depression, while others did not. Among the patients with depression, the researchers noted that about 65 percent of them had smaller hippocampuses than study participants without depression. However, only participants who had had recurring episodes of depression showed any signs of brain shrinkage. The study authors also found that the participants with the most significant brain shrinkage reported feeling depressed before the age of 21.
Aside from traumatic triggers, depression can also originate from a variety of nutritional imbalances. Some surprising triggers for depression include vitamin D deficiency, an imbalance of bacteria in the intestines, and even chronic inflammation. According to an investigation conducted by The Guardian in 2015, some scientists are now describing depression as more of an allergic reaction than a simple mental disorder.
Clinical psychologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, George Slavich, has this definition for the condition: “It does involve psychology, but it also involves equal parts of biology and physical health.”
His research combined with the research of many other scientists have brought to light the possibility that depression is more akin to a physical illness than a mental disorder.
Feelings of fatigue, restlessness, pain, and boredom are all associated with other physical illnesses in addition to depression. The researchers theorize that inflammation could be behind some cases of depression. Inflammation tells the body to move into healing mode by irritating the immune system. During depression, inflammation in the body increases dramatically, suggesting that it may be more of an illness than previously thought.
Triggers for high levels of inflammation in the blood include trans fats, sugar, stress, and obesity. In short, The Guardian investigation calls depression “a kind of allergy to modern life.”
In 2007, a study on postpartum depression published in the International Breastfeeding Journal found similar results. The researchers in this study stated, "These recent studies constitute an important shift in the depression paradigm: inflammation is not simply a risk factor; it is the risk factor that underlies all the others. Moreover, inflammation explains why psychosocial, behavioral and physical risk factors increase the risk of depression. This is true for depression in general and for postpartum depression in particular."
If depression is more often a case of poor lifestyle choices like many other diseases, then the path to full recovery becomes much easier to identify. Of course, external factors such as stress, loneliness, traumatic events, abuse, and emotional upheaval can all play a role in depressive episodes, but in this case, addressing the symptoms may help reduce the effects of the cause.
Take the following steps to prevent depression and naturally reverse depression from the inside out.
Do you know what the most successful way to reverse inflammation is? Eating a healthy diet. As stated above, sugar, unhealthy fats, a sedentary lifestyle, stress, and other junk foods can quickly cause inflammation in the body to skyrocket. Your diet directly affects your mental health. Fresh, nutrient-dense foods prepared from scratch are the best way to fight depression from the inside out.
Additionally, a diet full of fermented foods also provides benefit by balancing the bacteria in the intestines. Recent research suggests that many mental disorders originate from an imbalance of bacteria in the intestines. Avoid as much processed food as you can. When possible, try buying only food that is in plant or original animal form. Processing of any kind is bad for the body and could lead to inflammation.
Recurring bouts of depression damages the brain. However, luckily enough, exercise can reverse this damage. A sedentary lifestyle is much more likely to produce feelings of depression than a person who is active regularly. In one study, women who sat for seven or more hours a day were 47 percent more likely to suffer episodes of depression. Women who didn’t exercise at all were 99 percent more likely to suffer from depression. That is a strong link that cannot be ignored.
Regular exercise directly rebuilds brain tissue, increases the size of the hippocampus, boosts good mood feelings, balances chemicals in the brain, removes stress, and generally improves health. Just like you are less likely to get sick if you exercise regularly, you are less likely to be depressed as well.
Additionally, if you exercise outdoors in sunlight, you can maximize the benefits of exercise and the benefits of vitamin D exposure.
Meditation is an ancient practice that is crucial for optimal mental health. According to a report on the benefits of meditation published by Forbes Magazine in 2015, medication can affect the brain in the following ways: “[meditation has] an amazing variety of neurological benefits – from changes in grey matter volume to reduced activity in the 'me' centers of the brain to enhanced connectivity between brain regions…”
Additionally, the authors noted that meditation can also relieve anxiety, depression, improve concentration, and help meditators feel happier and healthier overall. A 2014 review of 47 studies on depression and meditation found that meditation had a moderate effectiveness rating against depression, which is identical to the benefits found by most antidepressants. Meditation can directly affect mental health and even grow the hippocampus, just like exercise. Emption control and self-referential thought are both improved with the practice of meditation.
There are also a few other practices and dietary changes that can prevent depression from creeping in. Natural supplements, including probiotics, omega 3 fatty acids, and curcumin have been found to have direct benefits on anxiety, stress, and depression. In addition to these natural treatments for depression, individuals suffering from mild to moderate depression may find it helpful to add the following nutrients to their diet to fight depression from the inside out.
Just like you can take extra vitamins and medicine to fight other infections, these internal supplements can also help fight depression from a molecular level.
Depression is often seen as a weakness that people should be able to “snap out” of, however, the disease is much more complicated than that. Recent research suggests that depression is much more of a disease and illness than previously thought, which can go a long way toward finding more effective treatments for the condition. Until then, the best treatments for depression work from the inside out to boost mood, regulate brain chemicals, regrow the brain, and reduce inflammation. Using these principles it is possible to reverse the affects of depression and prevent the illness from coming back. When we think of depression as an illness to fight off like the flu, treatments of diet, exercise, and nutrient consumption make a lot more sense.
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